The lasting effect of being recognized as a "hero"

Those honored by the Carnegie Hero Fund put their lives on the line to save others. For some, that bravery comes at a psychological cost.

The lasting effect of being a "hero"
The lasting effect of being a "hero" 05:50

When steel magnate Andrew Carnegie envisioned a medal given to people who risk their lives in the pursuit of saving others, he knew the recognition needed to go beyond praise. It also had to help the people he deemed "heroes."

Today, that often means support for the psychological stress that results from saving someone's life. 

Established in 1904, the Carnegie Hero Fund selects recipients in the United States and Canada who "risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others." The bronze Carnegie Medal comes with a $5,500 award. The fund also pays for funeral costs for a hero who is killed in the act, medical costs for injuries they incur, and support for psychological after-effects, including post-traumatic stress disorder. 

"Carnegie wanted to make sure that they did not suffer as a result of their split-second decision to put their life in danger for another human being," Eric Zahren, president of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley.

That automatic action is a common refrain in the heroes' stories. In reporting this week's story on the Carnegie Medal, 60 Minutes producer Aaron Weisz spoke with more than 50 of its recipients. Nearly all of them told him they had reacted without thinking.

But the majority of them also told Weisz their mental health and wellbeing has suffered as a result.  

"I can honestly say I don't feel safe everywhere anymore," said Terryann Thomas, who received the Carnegie Medal for intervening in an assault at her workplace. Thomas was a civilian overseeing confiscated property at Topeka police headquarters when an agitated man came into the property room. After demanding his bicycle be returned to him, he began assaulting a nearby officer. 

Thomas pulled the man off the officer and continued to restrain him, even after he had punched her in the face. Following the incident, Thomas said her injuries were more than physical. She had to leave her job in the property room. "I had a hard time," she explained. "I still have a hard time."   

Peter Pontzer also struggled in the aftermath of his heroism. The administrative judge earned his Carnegie Medal for saving a 13-year-old boy from drowning in the Atlantic Ocean. On hearing the boy needed help, Pontzer responded immediately, jumping into the water along with another man, and swimming about 150 yards to retrieve the boy. 

After returning to the shore, onlookers alerted Pontzer to a second young man who was also drowning. But Pontzer was unable to save him. 

"A part of me feels a bit incomplete for not getting the second boy," Pontzer said.  

He told Pelley he compares the feeling to the PTSD he felt after serving in the military in his 20s. Now in his 50s, Pontzer said he is handling his mental stress better. 

"I learned that it's okay to say, 'Look, I really should talk to someone,'" he said. "There is a way to get better and work your way through this. And that's how you do it, by talking to someone."  

As part of her healing, Terryann Thomas sought out therapy to work through the trauma she experiences. Still, Thomas, like many of the other heroes 60 Minutes spoke with about their Carnegie Medal, said she knows just how she would respond if she were ever confronted with a similar situation again. 

"I would do it again in a heartbeat," Thomas said. "If I saw the same thing happening, I would do it over again."

The video above was produced by Brit McCandless Farmer and Will Croxton. It was edited by Will Croxton.